This post discusses spoilers for the film Arrival. Believe me when I say that you don’t want this film to be spoiled before you see it. If you like science fiction and don’t want another popcorn action movie, then go see it.
I am not a linguistics nerd; that’s more Rachael’s wheelhouse. I enjoy the English language and the ways that we can play with it to communicate meaning, but I don’t geek out over broader topics in language. Rachael assures me that the linguistic theory being used in Arrival is pretty cool stuff, especially as it relates to the challenges that come from trying to build a system of communication between people who have absolutely no common knowledge. The central conceit of the story, that the aliens’ language necessarily imposes a different perspective of time, is a good metaphor for the linguistic idea that our language shapes our understanding of our environment (there’s a great moment later in the movie where the protagonist Dr. Louise Banks points out that trying to teach the aliens language through any sort of game that is built around competition will necessarily impose an understanding of all ideas in terms of winning and losing; she’s not happy about the implications of other countries using such a system in their attempts to communicate with the aliens). This concept’s not a new one; George Orwell famously used it as the basis for Newspeak in Nineteen Eighty-Four as a way to eliminate resistant ideation by minimizing the populace’s available vocabulary. The long and short is that language matters immensely, which I find to be an incredibly easy idea to get behind, though I might be biased.
In order to give this relatively highfalutin idea some emotional resonance, the movie builds a frame story around Dr. Banks’s relationship with her daughter, whom we learn in the beginning died at an early age because of some untreatable terminal illness. The beginning is designed to give us an impression of Dr. Banks as a relatively lonely woman who is probably managing depression in the aftermath of her daughter’s death; the father isn’t in the picture (never mind that Amy Adams, who plays Dr. Banks, appears to be the same age in every scene with her daughter, who lives to her teenage years at least). As Dr. Banks learns about the language of the Heptapods (because they resemble giant cephalopods with seven appendages) she finds herself coming unmoored in her personal timeline; she increasingly experiences what we learn are flash forwards to her daughter Hannah’s life. The Heptapod language doesn’t operate linearly (this is demonstrated in a visually beautiful way with the circular designs of Heptapod writing, which superficially resemble coffee cup stains) in the way that human languages usually do, and developing an understanding of it shifts Dr. Banks’s perspective so that she can see her whole life.
At this point I have to stop and point out that I’m totally geeked over this idea because it coincides so well with the issue of Watchmen that I just read about Jon Osterman and his own nonlinear perspective. The big difference between the two stories is that where Osterman’s perspective is treated as essentially dehumanizing (he increasingly dissociates from his actions in linear time, often evoking certain reactions from other people by pointing out that they are going to have those reactions, and then in turn reacting in a predetermined way that’s divorced from his foreknowledge of the situation), Dr. Banks’s realization of her own nonlinear experience is presented as ultimately hopeful; she uses her perspective to give herself necessary information in the past to defuse the international crisis that arises from the Heptapods’ arrival, and she comes to a place of acceptance regarding the course of her daughter’s life. For her, experiencing her whole life in a sort of eternal now mitigates the grief of seeing her daughter’s death since the whole of Hannah’s life is always present before her.
It’s also useful to compare these two stories because Arrival‘s format as a film helps highlight how the medium conceals the nonlinear perspective until it becomes relevant to the plot. The audience’s familiarity with the ideas of flashback and flash forward are used to confuse the two in a way that disguises the chronology of the story until it becomes most emotionally resonant. In Watchmen, Osterman’s nonlinear perspective is an interesting feature of the format that serves more to inform character than plot; we get not particular insight into the larger story by knowing that this one character experiences time differently than all the other characters.
Now, as is expected with any story, there are some flaws in this movie. My biggest complaint is the casting of Jeremy Renner, who is a perfectly cromulent actor, but who is always going to leave a bad taste in my mouth following his doubling down on slut-shaming Black Widow during the promotional run up to the release of Avengers: Age of Ultron. When a person exposes their ugly side in public and doesn’t back down from it, you shouldn’t forget that. Besides that, I find the requirement that we believe Amy Adams is going to look the same for a span of twenty years a little hard to swallow; I was distracted by questions of how she could look the same age at the beginning of her daughter’s life as at its end, and then even more perplexed when it was revealed that we meet Dr. Banks before she’s even met her future husband. This fact doesn’t lessen the emotional impact of the story, but it definitely niggles after you’re out of the theater and the high has worn off. Also, as always, it would be nice to see more diversity in the casting; nothing about the story necessitates that Dr. Banks be white, and it’s kind of jarring to see only white people in the background of the military encampment outside the spaceship.
Still, overall this is a remarkably good movie, and you should go see it. Of course, I already said that at the beginning, so maybe you have.